Ben Marks

Jamie Kennedy spoke with Ben Marks, trombonist of the ELISION new music ensemble and trombone teacher at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. 

Ben Marks photo

Jamie: Your reputation as a performer and teacher is often closely associated with contemporary music. At your recent talk and workshop on contemporary trombone technique at the Brisbane Lower Brass Weekend you took issue with the conventional division made between “contemporary music” and “mainstream music”. Could you expand on this for us?

Ben: I don’t see a divide between contemporary and mainstream music. My approach to any piece is always an attempt to understand the musical language of the composer – this could be Wagenseil, Hindemith or Xenakis. For example, Wagenseil’s concerto for trombone includes many ornaments and has various suggested articulations, most of which are editorial in printed versions of this piece. To get at what the composer is asking we have to do a little research and try to understand how Wagenseil liked to ornament and get a picture of articulation practice in the 18th century. The same principles apply to Hindemith, whose book “The Craft of Musical Composition” gives a detailed look at his theories and influences. His Sonata for Trombone seen in this context has more to do with various intervalic tension theories and Bach than it might have to do with doom laden feelings of war. His language isn’t closely connected to the type of highly emotive music we might associate with the Grondahl concerto so we need to understand afresh how Hindemith expresses himself.

Contemporary music is the same. We need to consider which elements in the musical language are important for a successful performance (dynamic intensity, physical movement, sound texture, sound shape, density of notes). We shouldn’t put barriers up around a narrow expressive style (say late romantic expressionism) but consider the huge spectrum of styles and languages. This may require that we spend considerable time learning new pieces (to ‘get’ the composer’s language) but often the rewards are great. The best thing about working with living composers is that we can also have the direct conversation about any areas that we don’t understand. The composer in this relationship isn’t the be all and end all of this process either: we have to perform the music and it has to find a connection with our internal expressive self.

Jamie: As a As a long-standing member of ELISION you have premiered new works from many leading contemporary composers. Do composers writing new works to be premiered by ELISION often consult with you regarding the trombone parts? Over the years, which technical and other aspects of trombone playing have you been called upon to discuss with composers keen to learn more about writing for our instrument?

Ben: Thankfully most of the composers I’ve worked with through ELISION are already highly familiar with the instrument. They’ve talked to local performers, studied the major new works and have a working knowledge of what we do and how we do it. This is really a requirement of all composers in this day and age. Having said that we did recently work very closely with Irish composer Ann Cleare who wrote a concerto for trumpet, bass clarinet and trombone, which we premiered with the RTÉ Orchestra in Dublin at the beginning of this year. Some years previous to this we spent time with Ann imitating various electronic sounds she had prepared. Out of this procedure we developed very finely detailed expressive gestures which were then composed into this concerto. Composers seem very interested in the multilayered-ness of sound possibilities on the trombone. This is quite clear in Berio’s Sequenza V, with vocal and trombone parts independently moving as well as the various mute opening and closings etc. These days this is taken further whereby the slide movement is no longer rhythmically connected to the harmonics and other elements are layered in (half valve, air accents). This multilayered approach certainly takes a while to learn but yields great results: all the cracks between the sounds are the compositional material.

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